Franck, Sebastian (1499-1543)

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Sebastian Franck.
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Sebastian Franck (20 January 1499-1543), the great German chronicler and popular historiographer of the 16th century, born in 1499 in Donauwörth, Bavaria, died in 1542 or 1543 at Basel, Switzerland, studied at the universities of Ingolstadt and Heidelberg, held a cure in the bishopric of Augsburg, in 1526 became a priest in Buchenbach near Schwabach, and in 1527 Protestant pastor in Gustenfelden near Nürnberg. Here in 1528, he translated and edited Andreas Althamer's Diallage, a book attacking Hans Denck and the "fanatics."

In this work Franck reveals himself as a strict Lutheran; but his complaints against the abuse of the Bible and the doctrine of grace already indicate the beginnings of his later position. This position becomes clearer in his next work, Von dem gräulichen Laster der Trunkenheit. Here he is still entirely a Lutheran; but he censures the unchristian life of the clergy and demands the introduction of the ban. Mere preaching does not suffice. "We cannot be raised from our pillows, one preaches always to flocks of geese and blue ducks without any fruit ... because it yields milk, wool, and money. Alas, we are not only filled with wine, but full of the spirit of deception, error, and ignorance. Open vices should be censured, by the preachers with word and ban, by the princes with the law and the sword. For because the ban is not exercised, I know nothing to say of a Gospel or of a spiritual church" (Erbkam, 357, note; Hegler, 27).

In 1528 Franck resigned his position in Gustenfelden. He may have been compelled to do this on account of his attitude toward the Anabaptists, who were still numerous in and around Nürnberg. This is the surmise of Martin Frecht (Hegler in HRE). He went first to Nürnberg and on 17 March 1528 married Ottilie Behaim, probably the sister of the "ungodly" painters, Bartholomew and Sebald Behaim, whom Hans Denck calls his friends. It is almost certain that he came in contact with Anabaptists here, but there is no evidence for Ludwig Keller's assertion (Comeniushefte, 1900, 322) that he became a personal friend of Hans Denck.

In Nürnberg Sebastian Franck experienced a complete transformation. The theologian became an author, the Lutheran a Spiritualist, the churchman an individualist who felt at home in no religious organization but wished to establish an invisible, spiritual church. He expressed himself to that effect in the conclusion of his book Die Türkenchronik, written in Nürnberg in 1530. In this book he discussed the "10 or 12 nations or sects of Christendom," and called attention to the fact that "besides the three faiths which now have a great following, viz., the Lutheran, Zwinglian, and Anabaptist, the fourth is already arising, that seeks to clear away all outward ceremonies, the sacraments, and also the ban and to establish an invisible church, gathered in the unity of the Spirit among all peoples, and governed without external means by God's eternal invisible Word" (Hegler, HRE). These are ideas encountered in many a person of the time who was spiritually akin to the Anabaptists or in some connection with them, such as Campanus, Bünderlin, Schwenckfeld, and Servetus.

In the fall of 1529 he went to Strasbourg and there became acquainted with Schwenckfeld, Servetus, and Bünderlin, as he wrote in a letter to Campanus on 4 February 1531 (Hegler, 50 ff; Nicoladoni, 124; Mennonitisches Lexikon I, 320). In this letter he called Bünderlin a "learned and wonderfully pious man, dead to the world." He wrote that he desired with all his heart also to be baptized with the baptism with which Bünderlin had been baptized; faith could not be learned out of a book or from a human being, however holy he might be, but it is learned from God and implanted by Him in the school of the Lord under the cross. He admitted that he did not know whether or not Bünderlin was his brother in the faith, but was sure that Bünderlin was much more learned and God-fearing than he, "wretched man" that he was (Hegler, 52 and 264 ff). This letter is found in Schellhorn, 114, and in Amoenitates.

In Strasbourg Franck very probably also became acquainted with Melchior Hoffman (Krohn, 208). Catrou's opinion (Histoire III, 237), which is based on Meshovius, that Hoffman won Franck to his group, is wrong; for Franck, in his Paradoxa (145), expressly attacked Hoffman's doctrine of the Incarnation. The two men were of such opposite positions—only in their mysticism are they somewhat related—that any closer kinship is hardly thinkable, even though they shared the common lot of expulsion from Strasbourg.

Franck was expelled from Strasbourg on 30 December 1531 with his family. The occasion for the ban was the publication of his Chronica, Zeytbuch and geschychtbibel, his first major work, which he completed and published in Strasbourg in 1531, and which became a very widely read book. It was probably his most significant work, and was published in various editions. In Anabaptist circles it was also cherished and much read and used. Menno Simons took more quotations from it than from any other author (Vos, 262). He "believed in him as in an oracle" (Vos, 40). It is possible that Menno acquired his knowledge of the ancient writers chiefly from this book, as Duncanus charged in 1549. His idea of the imminent end of the world and return of Christ seems to have been influenced by it. It also contains valuable source material on the Anabaptists.

This book aroused everywhere a most painful excitement, because all existing religious groups felt themselves deeply wounded and criticized; all thought they had the truth, but no one, said Franck, had it. The author met with bitter hostility and entered a period of deep suffering. Erasmus was also offended because he had been ranked among the heretics; he lodged a complaint with the council in Strasbourg, perhaps under the influence of Bucer, and brought it about that the matter was investigated, Franck arrested, and the Chronica confiscated. Franck was then released and expelled from the city, and the sale of his books was forbidden.

From Strasbourg he went to Kehl; in the spring of 1532 he addressed a petition to the Strasbourg Council to permit his return and the publication of the Weltbuch, which was to appear as a fourth part of the Chronica; both requests were refused. From Kehl he went to Esslingen and made a poor living as a soapmaker. In the summer of 1533 he attended the weekly markets in Ulm with his wares. This aroused in him the wish to live in the city. He was given permission. He had expressly promised not to seek any church office "in these dangerous times"; he did not want to deprive others of their living. "What I have received from the Lord I want to share in writing with the people of God and not bury it."

At Ulm he entered the printery of Hans Warnier in the summer of 1534 and there published his Paradoxa (280 statements about God and the world), and his translation into German of Erasmus' Encomion Moriae, with the addition of three tracts which he named the Kronbüchlein; one of these deals with the vanity of all human arts and sciences, the second with the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the third with the praise of the foolish divine Word and the difference between the inner Word and the outer Word. Most significant are the Paradoxa, in which he developed most clearly his doctrinal system, if one may call it by this term. In 1534 also appeared his Weltbuch, a description of the countries and peoples, their customs, religions, and institutions in four parts; the last deals with the newly discovered America; the conclusion is a presentation of the various doctrinal ideas on earth.

In Ulm too Franck was severely attacked. Martin Frecht, the Protestant clergyman in Ulm, proved to be his most violent opponent. Philip of Hesse demanded his expulsion from Ulm as an "Anabaptist and revolutionary." Franck was to be expelled from the city on 3 March 1535. He protested against this since this constituted a violation of law; as a citizen of the city—he had been granted citizenship on 28 October 1534—he could not be expelled without a hearing. He was not guilty of sedition, nor was he a heretic or Anabaptist, but had instead converted a number of Anabaptists. In his Deklaration he defended himself against Frecht's charges, also expressing himself on the subject of community of goods. For more than two years he was now left in peace in return for the promise neither to write anything against the clergy nor to publish anything written by himself or by anyone else without censorship. In the meanwhile he had established his own print shop and bookstore. But he was able to publish in his own shop only a few smaller writings, such as the 613 Commands and Prohibitions of the Jews, and a revision of a Latin booklet by Sebastian Münster, and the satirical poem "St. Pfennings Lobgesang." The larger works he had to have printed elsewhere, since he could not secure permission to print them in Ulm. Thus on 15 March 1538 his Guldin Arch appeared in Augsburg, and in August 1538 his German chronicle Germaniae Chronicon appeared in Frankfurt a.M. In the former he discussed the principal points of the Christian faith with citations from the Bible and the church fathers as well as from non-Christian poets and thinkers. In the foreword he sharply accused the theologians for writing long commentaries and quarreling about sacraments, while they let practical Christian living in faith perish. For genuine pious Christians it was sufficient to know the Apostolic Confession of Faith and the Ten Commandments. By this publication his opponents were newly aroused against him; they finally had him and Schwenckfeld banished from Ulm, on 8 January 1539.

On 10 January Sebastian Franck with his wife and five children, aged seven years to two months, arrived at Basel, Switzerland, where he entered the book printing business of Nikolaus Brylinger. In Basel he wrote his noted letter to the "Christians in Lower Germany" upon the request of a certain Johann von Beckenstein of Oldersum (Rembert, 226, who thought the letter was sent to the Bohemian Brethren in the Eifel area). Since Menno Simons stayed there a while in 1537 (Vos, 64), it can be assumed that this letter was meant for the Anabaptist brotherhood. The letter admonishes his dear brethren, who are like sheep in the midst of wolves, to seek Christ and the kingdom of God not outwardly but within themselves, and warns them against sectarianism and separatism.

"Consider as dear people all who tolerate you in your faith and conscience and are willing to admit you as Godfearing citizens beside themselves; show them so much the more kindness, in order to win them through your innocence, love, faithfulness, and upright conduct without the preaching of the Word of God, even if they preach Christ and nevertheless walk in error and seek, worship, and vainly teach God with a mistaken zeal. From open and ungodly sinners, adulterers, liars, and usurers, do not separate yourselves in any other respect than from their ungodly life; do not partake of this if Christ is dear to you. ... In brief, seek Christ not here or there, and do not mistakenly think that He is more with us than with you. He is no respecter of persons; we are all equally dear to Him. He is equally close to every nation even if they are outwardly called pagans, Jews, Turks, or Christians. Anyone who lives right and well, let him be to you a true brother, flesh and blood in Christ. It must be thus, Christ's sheep must lie among the wolves to the end of the world, as Luke 21 clearly shows. I have written this much about this as a favor to Johann Beckenstein and also at the request of other persons, for in general I do not like to write my faith abroad. Nor do I desire to have a special sect or following in the world. Let no one believe anything out of love to me which his heart of nature does not help him to accept. For here nothing can be counted according to the blessings of other people; but if you dig you will surely find. The servant of all of you in the Lord, Sebastian Franck at Basel."

Rembert published this letter in a Low German version and Hegler mentioned the Latin original, which is located in Königsberg.

In his last years Franck produced a number of writings of varying length. In 1540 his collection of proverbs appeared at Frankfurt, from which Lessing published extracts in 1857 in his Collectanea (Comeniushefte, 1901, 193). His Kriegsbüchlein der Friedens attacks the chaplains of the princes who defend warfare; his Handbüchlein collects briefly the main points of Christian doctrine. His Verbütschiert Buch is a concordance of the Bible which especially deals with the contradictions in it. In his exposition of Psalm 64 he sharply lashes the attitude of the scribes who drive away as heretics the true followers of Christ by misusing the Scriptures. His Latin paraphrase of the Theologia Deutsch (a transcript made in the 16th century is found in the [[Amsterdam Mennonite Library (Bibliotheek en Archief van de Vereenigde Doopsgezinde Gemeente te Amsterdam)|Mennonite Library in Amsterdam]]; Comeniushefte, 1902, 86) was never printed. For the sake of completeness mention should also be made of the following additional writings: Klagschrift oder Suplication der armen Dürftigen in England an den König daselbst gestellt wider die reichen, geistlichen Bettler (1529); Eine künstlich höfliche Deklamation und heftiger Wortkampf, Kant und Hader dreier Brüder vor Gericht. Nämlich eines Säufers, Hurers und Spielers. Von Philippo Beroaldo in Latein gestellt, verdeutscht von Seb. Franck (Nürnberg, 1531); Von Ankunft der Messe und der Wandelung des Brots und Weins im hochwürdigen Sakrament des Altars. Eine Disputation Seb. Francks mit Antwort Joh. Cochlei auf 88 Artikel aus der neuen Chronica (1533); Von der achtfältigen Belagerung und erschröcklichen Zerstörung der notfesten Stadt Jerusalem (Frankfurt, 1532); Wie man beten und psallieren soll (this is the first hymn in the Ausbund,); Dass Gott das einig ein und höchstes Gut sei (1534); Cornelius Aggrippas Lob des Esels. Verdeutscht von Seb. Franck, Von der Hoffnung und der Liebe Gottes; Sieben Weise in Griechenland, berühmt. Samt der hochverständigen, erleuchteten Personen, Philosophen und Gelehrten Leben. Von der Babylonischen Gefängnis der Juden bis auf Christum. Schöne nützliche Historien. He also wrote three devotional tracts: Von dem Reiche Christi; Von der Welt, des Teufels Reich; and Von der Gemeinschaft der Heiligen, which were not printed until after his death.

Franck's point of view is most significantly expressed in the song in which he rejects the four contemporary religious groups, the Catholic, the Lutheran, the Zwinglian, and the Anabaptist, which has the title, "Von der zwieträchtigen Kirche, deren jede die andere verhasset und verdammet" (Wackernagel, Kirchenlied III, 817). The first stanza begins with the words, "Ich will und mag nicht Bäptisch sein," stanza 2, "Ich will und mag nicht Lutherisch sein," stanza 3, "Ich will und mag nicht Zwinglisch sein," and stanza 4, "Kein Wiedertäufer will ich sein."  The fourth stanza is as follows:

Kein Wiedertäufer will ich sein,

Ihr Grund is klein,

steet auf dem Wassertauffen;

Die andern Secten Schreckens ab,

da kein Gotts gab,

drumb in bsonder Kirchen lauffen.

 Leiden drob nott,

Welt hass unnd Todtt;

desshalb ohn spott

neher bey Gott

dan ander all drey hauffen.

Sebastian Franck was a sharp observer, an intelligent judge, a brilliant popular author, and a courageous historian animated by an unpartisan love of truth. He had at his disposal a widely inclusive knowledge. Almost every movement of his time is reflected in his writings. How well he knows how to reveal the wrongs of his time and to illuminate the weaknesses of the leading men and their doctrinal systems! He holds firmly to the Christian faith in God; but it takes on a tinge of the pantheism of ancient philosophy. He has excellent statements about the value and nature of the Scriptures, about their importance and significance, but he does not accept them as a sole platform; for him the Word of God is implanted in all human beings and is effective in all believers, that is, those who let it take effect in them. For this reason he does not really understand Biblicistic Anabaptism.

And yet Franck is very close to the Anabaptists. This has been strikingly shown by Walmer Köhler in his article in RGG. Among the Anabaptists he had friends and admirers who "praise and highly value him" (Arnold, 284). Elsewhere he was attacked and rejected. Melanchthon, Bucer, and other theologians at the convention at Schmalkalden on 5 March 1540, uttered their verdict of damnation upon him because he separated from the church, despised the Bible and the office of preaching, and spread the satanic doctrine that all churches were alike. In 1545 Luther, in his foreword to the discussion on marriage, utters a very harsh judgment upon Sebastian Franck, one of the noblest and most open spirits of the time, saying, "He had not wanted to write anything about such people, because he too deeply despised him; he was a slanderer, and the devil's own and favorite mouthpiece. ... In so far as I can judge by the smell of my nose, he is a fanatic or spiritualist who likes nothing but spirit, spirit, and who thinks nothing of Word, sacrament, and the office of preaching. . . . He has wandered through all filth and suffocated in his own filth" (Arnold, loc. cit.).

For Anabaptism Sebastian Franck is of lasting importance. This importance can be summarized in the following points: (1) he had personal connections with the movement and many of its leaders; (2) for this reason his evaluation of them which he gives in his writings has a special value and forms a principal authentic source of information for their earliest history and doctrine; (3) he is their advocate and warmest defender against false accusations; (4) by means of his writings he had considerable influence on them; (5) he was himself influenced by them and based on their teaching his world-wide free concept of a practical Christianity which is based on inner experience and which activates itself in love. "He never tires of proclaiming the right of the individual in matters of faith, on the wrongness of all force, the responsibility of the individual, which can be taken from him by no brotherhood and no tradition." These are ideas found in Anabaptism, which were not universally recognized and valued until our time. Upon his own time Franck had little influence. In Germany he was soon forgotten, but in the Netherlands and in England his writings continued to live and bear fruit. -- Neff

Concerning the extent of Sebastian Franck's influence on the Anabaptists and the Dutch Reformation movement there is difference of opinion. Karel Vos thought that "Menno Simons believed in him as an oracle" (p. 40); whereas Christian Sepp claimed that the Dutch Anabaptists considered Franck an opponent (Geschiedkundige Nasporinge I, 163 f.). There is no doubt that the Anabaptists appreciated Franck's sympathetic and objective attitude and treatment of their views, and that they had much in common with him. (Menno Simons made many quotations in his booklets from Franck's works.) On the other hand, it is obvious that they did not share his noncommittal views regarding the church and certain doctrines. Dirk Philips took occasion to write against him. It was undoubtedly due to Franck's influence that Obbe Philips, Dirk's brother, left the Anabaptists about 1540 because they laid so much stress on a visible church, while Obbe like Franck was a spiritualist who did not believe that one church, e.g., the Anabaptist Church, was the true church of God (BRN VII, 122). Hans de Ries, another Dutch leader, influenced by Coornhert, who has been called the "Sebastian Franck of the Netherlands," also, at least for a while, came under the influence of Franck. In the 17th century the Lamist Mennonites and particularly their leader Galenus Abrahamsz held many of Franck's views, which were at this time common property among the Collegiants.

The letter (see above) which Franck wrote to Johan von Bekesteyn no doubt influenced the Mennonites. Dirk Philips reported that some elders and brethren gave him this letter and also the one Franck had written to Campanus, with the request that he respond to them. This he did by writing A Response and Refutation of the Two Letters by Sebastian Franck According to the Word of God Briefly Com¬posed by D. P. (Een verantwoordinghe ende Refuta¬tion op twee Sendtbrieven Sebastiani Franck, corte-lijck uyt die heylighe Schrift vervaet D.P. [BRN X, 473]).

This, however, does not mean that the Anabaptists and particularly the Dutch did not rely heavily on Franck's writings. On the contrary, this proves that some of the leaders thought that their followers were depending too heavily on him.

The identity of Johan von Bekesteyn is also an unanswered question. Bekesteyn made it a point to visit Franck and upon his request Franck wrote the letter addressed to the "Christians in Lower Germany." This letter has been published in its original Latin form (Hegler, Beiträge) and in a Dutch-Low German translation by Rembert (p. 226), and most recently by Ohling in a modern High German translation (Ostfreesland, 1954, 114). The Dutch-Low-German edition was evidently first published in 1564, at which time Pieter de Zuttere edited the two letters of Franck to Campanus and von Bekesteyn. It was evidently this edition which was handed to Dirk Philips for a response.

Some scholars think that von Bekesteyn was an Anabaptist, although no definite record seems to confirm this. He was a refugee from the Netherlands who found shelter in Oldersum, East Friesland, where many Dutch refugees were located. He was a friend of William Gnapheus and Entfelder. That he was a full-fledged Anabaptist is unlikely, mainly for the following reason. On his way to South Germany he was in touch with the reformers of Strasbourg, viz., Capito, Bucer, etc., and sent the two letters to Felix Rex Polyphemus, a reformer in Prussia and friend of Paul Speratus, including letters by Bullinger and Calvin.  This span of friends and spiritual interests definitely goes beyond that of an average Anabaptist of the 16th century. Until there is more evidence it must be assumed that von Bekesteyn was a Dutch Sacramentist who found refuge in East Friesland and associated and sympathized with leaders and views of the Sacramentists, Reformed, and Left Wing Anabaptists. A closer check of all records should indicate the church to which he belonged in East Friesland. -- CK, vdZ


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Author(s) Christian Neff
Cornelius Krahn
Nanne van der Zijpp
Date Published 1956

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MLA style

Neff, Christian, Cornelius Krahn and Nanne van der Zijpp. "Franck, Sebastian (1499-1543)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. 1956. Web. 19 Aug 2022.,_Sebastian_(1499-1543)&oldid=171998.

APA style

Neff, Christian, Cornelius Krahn and Nanne van der Zijpp. (1956). Franck, Sebastian (1499-1543). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 19 August 2022, from,_Sebastian_(1499-1543)&oldid=171998.


Adapted by permission of Herald Press, Harrisonburg, Virginia, from Mennonite Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, pp. 363-367. All rights reserved.

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